02 September 2006

13. Quicksilver by Neal Stephenson

I loved Snow Crash so much I decided to get some more Stephenson. Quicksilver is book one of the Baroque Cycle.

The book is divided into three sections - the first deals with England's Natural Philosophers of the Royal Society like the fictional Daniel Waterhouse and his room mate the real Isaac Newton and their pals. The second section introduces two other main characters Half-Cocked Jack Shaftoe a Vagabond and crusading mercenary soldier who is suffering from the French Pox (syphilis), and Eliza who is from the fictional island of Qwghlm and has found herself in the harem of the Sultan.

Clocking in at just over 900 pages, Quicksilver would be difficult for me to summarize. I will say that I thoroughly enjoyed the last two sections of the book. I really had to wonder why Stephenson included the first section dealing with some obscure topics and people. But as I read on I realized that the Baroque Era, which just preceded the Enlightenment, was dominated by the investigation of the natural world. The conclusions of these philosopher scientists rocked the world of religion, politics, and science.

One other interesting technique Stephenson uses is that he starts the story in the middle, we see Waterhouse living in Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1713. He is asked to come back to England to help settle a long-simmering conflict between Leibniz and Newton over who discovered the calculus. So the frame is set that most of the tale is trying to catch up with the first few chapters (and in fact, after I finished the second novel I reread the first section of the first book again, and now I'm convinced Stephenson is a genius writer).

The second and third drops the Natural Philosophers altogether and picks up with Jack outside the siege of Vienna, about to invade the city with some army he has hired on to fight for. After he goes chasing after an ostrich (figuring the feathers are the best plunder he stands to gain as a lowly foot-soldier), he stumbles across one of the Sultan's men killing all of the girls in the harem. He puts a stop to that and rescues Eliza. She turns out to be from Qwghlm, an island off the north west coast of England. When Eliza was little she and her mother were captured and made the servants of a French noble. She was then traded for some horses and found herself in the harem. So Jack and Eliza escape on Turk, this great war horse that Jack steals. They go on some amazing misadventures, but it turns out that Eliza is a genius for making deals. She wheels and deals and makes a small fortune. Unfortunately Jack, in order to gain her love, decided to engage in a bit of trading for himself and invests in a slave ship. Eliza, a former slave, gets mad at Jack for perpetuating the slave trade and harpoons Jack before he can make it off the ship and make it up to her. He comes to in the middle of the ocean just as their ship is coming under attack from Barbary Corsairs. Jack is rowing a slave galley as Quicksilver ends.

I'm leaving out so much: cryptography, machinations of the French court, letters between Natural philosophers, machinations of the Natural Philosophers, James II, Louis XIV, Catholics, Protestants, Germans, and the Dutch (including of course, William of Orange).

I recommend.

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